Derek Bell – Deep Branch in Geleen, Netherlands

For his PIPs, Derek went to Deep Branch in Geleen, Netherlands to help improve production of microbial protein sources by aquafermentation – read all about it here!

What did you do?

I joined a British/Dutch company called Deep Branch at their pilot facility in Geleen, Netherlands. Upon my arrival the company was performing final safety checks on the pilot fermentation vessel they had installed at the plant. The fermentation vessel is unique as it is one of the first designed to grow hydrogen oxidising bacteria consistently and safely at a large scale. This form of gas fermentation poses a greater risk as hydrogen is extremely explosive when mixed with at least 4% oxygen. 

What did you do?

Pressure valves and pipes!

One of my jobs was to perform an audit on all the components that carry and control the flow of hydrogen. For this job I was referring to piping and instrumentation diagrams and taking photos of all the relevant instruments at the site. I further consolidated all available ATEX documentation to determine whether instruments were suitably rated under the EU rules for working with hydrogen. In my role I found numerous instruments in the system that were not safe and as a result an engineering firm has been hired to review my findings and replace any unsafe instruments. 

Following the completion of the safety audit I investigated biological questions regarding the benefits to aquaculture of the fermentation product (Proton) and potential methods of reducing costs in the downstream processing and formulation. Referring to academic literature I consolidated information and published four reports that were shared with the Chief of Technology and Innovation within the company. One of the reports noted that polyhydroxyalkanoate, which can be found in high abundance in Proton, has immune stimulating effects and has been seen to reduce the symptoms of soybean induced enteritis in Atlantic salmon.  This information has been presented to investors and the board and may increase the value of the product.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that livestock is the single greatest user of land with it accounting for 80% of all agricultural land, totalling approximately 38.4 million km2. Globally there is protein inequity with shortages seen in some developing countries, highlighting how unsustainable current agricultural practices are. Compounding this problem are the large emissions associated with livestock production, which accounts for 18% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The microbial-derived protein being developed at Deep Branch has the potential of creating large amounts of protein in a small area, with preliminary estimates indicating that it would require 1700 times less land than soy to produce an equivalent amount of protein. Unlike all current agriculture to date this technology could continue to produce protein regardless of the season. This aspect of the technology also means that it could increase global food security as the climate becomes more extreme due to global warming. The huge potential effects this technology could have on agriculture was the main reason I selected this placement. I also selected this placement because it would give me my first experience working in a corporate structure, whilst also giving me experience in industrial microbiology.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I found this placement through speaking with engineering students in the Energy 2050 group at the University of Sheffield. I heard that one of their colleagues was working for a company converting carbon dioxide into food through microbial fermentation. This piqued my interest as it was very vague about how exactly that was possible. Through a long email chain with the student in which I asked questions about the technology and the company I was put into contact with the person at Deep Branch who was responsible for student internships at the company. We exchanged a few emails then had a zoom meeting in which we discussed what I could potentially contribute to the company and what I hoped to get out of the experience. Following this he said I could come on anytime so I communicated with my supervisors to plan when I should take the three month break from my PhD.

What have you gained from doing your PIPs?

I feel like I have gained valuable corporate experience from this placement. Especially regarding how companies are structured, and the main drivers associated with project development. I also feel like I have gained excellent experience in industrial microbiology, which may be incredibly useful later if I apply for jobs in either industry or in government as I can now say I have experience working in medical, environmental, and industrially microbiology.

How would you sum up your PIPs experience?

I believe that when I look back at my time at Deep Branch I may see it as a formative moment in my career. In my role there I had to research a variety of different topics and produce reports to help inform future decisions regarding strain development, downstream processing, and plant safety. One thing I recognised from researching these varied topics is that I enjoy evaluating and considering the feasibility of new technologies or actions. Another important thing I learned is that I prefer working in a collaborative environment.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPs?

One piece of advice would be to reach out to a company that already has experience taking on PGR students, as they will have a better understanding of your skill level going in. Also, when choosing your PIPS try to step out of your comfort zone, but just make sure that the skills you gain will be broadly applicable to the career you want in the future.